Obama’s Sobering Choices

Since the inception of the presidential campaign Barack Obama has promised to transcend America’s petty and divisive politics.  During a recent appearance on Late Show with David Letterman, the Illinois Senator remarked that the U.S. was in the midst of electoral “silly season” and that the public should pay more attention to pressing economic concerns.  Savaged by a wave of negative claims from the McCain camp in recent weeks, Obama is desperately trying to turn the conversation back to bread and butter issues.  But McCain is not letting up.  Why should he?  For now, the GOP’s strategy of exploiting American cultural politics is reaping great dividends. 


In a new all time low earlier this week, McCain aired an attack ad claiming that as a state lawmaker in Illinois Obama backed a bill to teach “comprehensive sex education” to kindergartners.”  “Learning about sex before learning to read?” the ad intoned.   “Barack Obama.  Wrong on education.  Wrong for your family.”  In reality, the legislation permitted local schools to teach “age-appropriate” sex education, meaning that kindergarten kids could be warned about sexual predators and inappropriate touching but not taught about sex.


Obama may scoff at such gutter tactics but the polls indicate that McCain’s cultural strategy and tapping of Sarah Palin for his VP slot is proving enormously successful amongst the American public.  By Obama’s own admission, Palin has been “a political phenomenon.”  Real Clear Politics, a Web site which acts as a clearing house for the most up to date polls, makes for sobering reading these days.  McCain is up by more than two points nationally, a strong contrast from June through August when most surveys showed Obama with about a five point advantage. 


The Obama campaign may claim that the election is not decided on the national vote but within key battleground states.  True, but even here the news has been terrible: in Virginia, where Obama was narrowly leading in June and July, McCain is now up by more than two points.  Pennsylvania is now a tossup.  Florida is no longer a tossup and is leaning McCain.  A couple of states that were merely leaning McCain like North Carolina and Georgia are now solidly in his column.  At present the electoral vote is about even with 217 for Obama and 216 for McCain.


Faced with this stark reality, Obama has three options: 1) stake out more left positions on the issues; 2) go negative and destroy McCain and Palin’s character; 3) keep on running the same type of campaign he’s done up until now and hope that the Sarah Palin phenomenon dies down or the Alaska Governor trips and falls.



Option #1


Public opinion surveys show that Americans consistently share liberal positions on the environment, Iraq and healthcare.  If Obama were to tack left on the issues he would energize his base and differentiate his campaign from the lackluster Kerry of ’04.  But there’s little evidence that such an approach would lead to electoral success: Ralph Nader and Cynthia McKinney have staked out more liberal positions than Obama and the American public hasn’t shown any interest whatsoever in their candidacies. 


What’s more, if Obama were to reverse himself and adopt a more progressive stance on health care for example he would be accused of being a flip-flopper and worse by the mainstream media.  On Election Day Obama would probably wind up with his home state of Illinois, Vermont, California, Massachusetts and a couple of other liberal states and lose by a wide margin to McCain.



Option #2


Given all of the domestic and foreign policy disasters the U.S. is currently facing, one would think that Obama would win the election in a landslide.  Nevertheless, it’s becoming ever clearer that the public is not receptive to a campaign which is based on tangible issues.  Recently CNN interviewed women voters in Missouri who had become electrified by the McCain ticket.  When asked why they planned to vote for the Arizona Senator, they simply replied that they could identify with Sarah Palin as a person.


Looking at the way the polls are headed Obama might soberly conclude that the American public lacks sufficient analytical tools to decipher politics and simply parrots what the media pundits say.  At this point Obama might think that his only option is to try and blacken McCain and Palin’s name.  The alternative is to fall prey to Swiftboat-like tactics and lose the election like John Kerry before him. 


If character assassination is the only viable way to win an election in this country, then Obama surely has plenty of ammunition.  He could, for example a) try to paint McCain as someone who is a true elitist and out of touch with the reality of everyday Americans; b) try to depict McCain as unhinged and temperamental; c) show that McCain is forgetful and out of touch with the younger generation; d) depict Palin as way out of the mainstream of U.S. politics.


A: Elitist:  Obama could run ads showing McCain’s many houses and emphasize how the Arizona Senator couldn’t even remember how many residences he owned.  It’s a simple and effective ad strategy that even the most uninformed Americans can understand.  “Who’s the real elitist?” Obama might ask.


B: Temper: McCain has been dubbed “Senator Hothead” by more than one publication with some justification.  Last year McCain shouted “Fuck you” to Texas Senator John Cornyn.  McCain and Cornyn argued during a meeting on immigration legislation; Cornyn complained that McCain seemed to drop in during the final stages of negotiations.  “Fuck you. I know more about this than anyone else in the room,” McCain reportedly shouted.


“Only an asshole would put together a budget like this,” McCain told the former Budget Committee chairman, Sen. Pete Domenici, in 1999. 


And on another occasion: “I’m calling you a fucking jerk!” McCain retorted to Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley. 


According to the Associated Press, the political landscape in Arizona “is littered with those who have incurred his [McCain’s] wrath. Former Gov. Jane Hull pretended to hold a telephone receiver away from her ear to demonstrate a typical outburst from McCain in a 1999 interview.”


McCain’s colleague Senator Thad Cochran said very recently that the idea of McCain as GOP nominee sent a chill down his spine. McCain has battled for years with the Mississippi Republican, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, over pet projects or “earmarks” inserted by committee members into spending bills.


According to Cochran, McCain roughed up an associate of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega on a diplomatic mission in 1987. According to Cochran, McCain grabbed the Sandinista by the shirt collar and literally lifted him out of his chair. “McCain was down at the end of the table and we were talking to the head of the guerrilla group here at this end of the table and I don’t know what attracted my attention,” Cochran said in an interview with The Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi. “But I saw some kind of quick movement at the bottom of the table and I looked down there and John had reached over and grabbed this guy by the shirt collar and had snatched him up like he was throwing him up out of the chair to tell him what he thought about him or whatever.”


Cochran continued his inflammatory story: “I don’t know what he [McCain] was telling him but I thought, ‘Good grief, everybody around here has got guns and we were there on a diplomatic mission.’ I don’t know what had happened to provoke John, but he obviously got mad at the guy … and he just reached over there and snatched … him.” Cochran said no punches were thrown and the two sat back down. The man, who appeared ruffled after the confrontation with McCain, was an Ortega associate but Cochran said he was unsure of his identity.


Though Cochran is known as a consummate gentleman, when he talks about McCain the Mississippi Senator does not mince any words.  “He [McCain] is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me.”


As I wrote in a report for the North American Congress on Latin America or NACLA (www.nacla.org), Senator Bob Dole was present at the Managua meeting.  Dole wanted to bolster his national security credentials at the time and had a Republican camera crew film the entire event. It’s unclear whether the film still exists, or even whether the camera captured what was happening across the table where McCain was sitting.  If Obama wants to go negative and prove that McCain is unstable he could try to find out if the footage exists or talk to other people who were present.



C: Forgetful


McCain has been either forgetful or poorly informed about world events.  On different occasions the Arizona Senator has forgotten who was in charge of Iran, confused the difference between Sunni and Shia and didn’t know that Czechoslovakia had split into two countries in 1993.  McCain famously admitted that he didn’t know anything about the internet or computer technology, a point that the Obama campaign has begun to exploit.  The Democrats could weave these points together more shrewdly but so far they seem reluctant to use the age card against McCain.



D: Palin


As for Palin, Obama must counter the Alaska politician’s mainstream image.  It’s not a difficult or uphill task.  According to the Los Angeles Times, Palin “has cheered the work of a tiny party that long has pushed for a statewide vote on whether Alaska should secede from those same United States…‘Keep up the good work,’ she told members of the Alaskan Independence Party in a videotaped speech to their convention six months ago in Fairbanks. She wished the party luck on what she called its ‘inspiring convention.’”


Obama could claim that Palin’s Alaska politics fall outside the mainstream.  How could we trust someone who supports the breakup of the United States to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, Obama might ask? 


Obama could try another tack by attempting to link Palin with anti-Semitism.  Former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan has said that Palin was a “brigadier” for him in 1996 and attended a fundraiser for his campaign.  Buchanan has defended ex-Klansman David Duke, remarked that Hitler was “an individual of great courage,” and challenged the historical record that thousands of Jews were gassed to death by diesel exhaust at Treblinka. 


Florida Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler, an Obama supporter, has lashed out at McCain’s choice of Palin as his running mate due to the latter’s support of a “Nazi sympathizer” (Buchanan).  So far however, the Obama campaign hasn’t really exploited the issue in a systematic way.


Going negative might improve Obama’s poll numbers but such a maneuver would make the Illinois Senator vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy since Obama has belittled gutter politics as a distraction from the issues that matter.



Option #3


Perhaps, Obama might calculate, the Palin “phenomenon” will simply plateau.  The Democrats are surely hoping that Palin is a momentary fad and that Obama will recover in the polls within a week or so once the public has forgotten all about the GOP convention.  Perhaps they’re right, but to expect that Palin will shoot herself in the foot seems misplaced.  Though the Alaska Governor is still uncomfortable with the media she is a conscientious campaigner and has shown herself to be somewhat polished. 


Obama can afford to wait a few more days to see how things shake out, but if the McCain-Palin ticket continues to rise in the polls through negative campaigning the Illinois Senator will have to face some stark choices.



Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008).

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